Hundreds of former juvenile detainees sue NYC for child sexual abuse at detention centers

NEW YORK — More than 250 former juvenile detainees have filed lawsuits against New York City — including 100 people just this week — alleging sexual abuse as children by staff and other detainees at four past and present detention centers.

The allegations, which span from the 1970s to 2022, were made against guards, counselors and others who were supposed to watch out for young people in their custody. Instead, the plaintiffs say staff bribed and groomed them. Special privileges and contraband — such as cigarettes, drugs and alcohol — were exchanged for sexual favors, according to the complaints.

Most of the former detainees were younger than 16 during the alleged abuse at the two current juvenile facilities — Crossroads and Horizon — Rikers Island and the former Spofford Juvenile Detention Center, their lawyer said at a news conference Thursday at Brooklyn Borough Hall to announce the lawsuits.

“Many of our clients were detained for minor infractions,” said Jerome Block, a partner at Levy Konigsberg LLP, a law firm that specializes in childhood sexual abuse and exploitation cases. “Sometimes, these juvenile charges were even later dismissed. Some were in these juvenile facilities for a matter of weeks or months, and they were sexually abused during that short time period.”

Nijere Stewart, 14, was locked up for less than half of a year in 2018 at Crossroads in Brooklyn. He was detained for a nearby gun on criminal charges that were later thrown out, his lawyer said, but not before he faced sexual abuse.

“I went from an innocent kid with straight A’s, loved to play with my brothers, walk stilts in Crown Heights,” Stewart said, “to traumatized and ashamed as a teenager because of the nightmare I had to go to live every night from adults who were supposed to protect me.”

When he first arrived at the juvenile center, Stewart alleges a male staff member would grab his buttocks when he passed him in the hallway, according to his complaint. From there, the allegations intensified. The staffer fondled his genitals, sometimes under his clothes, about three times per week, according to court documents, and he was forced to perform oral sex and raped in two separate incidents.

Stewart reported the staff member to a counselor and his mother, who reported it to Crossroads, but the abuse continued after coming forward, the complaint said.

Just a few years earlier, Clyde Wiggins was detained at the same jail for more than a year, after his advocate said the then-16-year-old was in a car with adults who robbed a grocery store and took the blame for it as a minor. More than half-way through his time, Crossroads hired a female tutor who during sessions in the dorm area performed oral sex on him, according to a separate complaint.

Wiggins was bribed with alcohol and food from outside Crossroads, the filings read, but later reported the staff member and was transferred to Horizon. Since getting out almost two decades ago, he’s tried to get back into music, which he said was his passion before he was detained. But it hasn’t been easy.

“Afterward, when I came home and stuff like all that, that passion was gone,” Wiggins said. “I’m trying to find it back as an adult through my kid, but you know, it’s hard to.”

The hundreds of lawsuits, which have all been brought since April, were filed under a city gender-based violence law that in 2022 lifted the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits for a two-year, lock-back window. The temporary measure was lauded by advocates, who said it can take time for young people to come forward.

“The trauma of sexual abuse — especially abuse that occurs at such a young age — takes years to process before many are able to begin to even think about coming forward and reporting,” said Emily Miles, director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault. “For those who face the compound trauma of abuse while incarcerated, the process of recording can take even longer.”

Rikers no longer detains young teens after the state enacted a law known as “Raise the Age,” and Spofford, later renamed Bridges, permanently closed in 2011. Crossroads and Horizon detain an average of 260 young people each day, a 31% increase since last year, The New York Daily News previously reported.

Horizon is currently expanding with a new annex that will include dozens of new beds.

A spokesman for the Administration for Children’s Services, which now oversees the juvenile detention centers, said it is in compliance with federal law to deter the sexual assault of prisoners, and updated its sexual misconduct policies and practices earlier this year.

There is a compliance manager with the law at each facility, and other staff have to conduct at least one unannounced inspection during each shift, according to the agency. All uniformed staff who work with detainees have to complete an initial sexual misconduct training and biannual “refreshers.” Those found to break policy may be referred to law enforcement.

“ACS has a zero-tolerance policy concerning sexual abuse and sexual harassment of youth in detention, and we are committed to the prevention and elimination of sexual abuse and harassment,” the statement read. “We will review all filed lawsuits.”